an attempt to explain to you (and to myself) why I write songs

When you’re working towards a goal, it is hard not to run, run, run (as fast as you can) all while keeping your chin up and your eyes on the prize – even if you’re not exactly sure what that prize will look like once you’ve got your hands on it. In the midst of all the running and the panting and the exhaustion… it’s easy to ignore the most obvious question: Why am I doing this in the first place?

Sometimes an answer doesn’t come easily. But when it does, you’ve got to pay attention, and you’ve got to record it either in memory or in physical form, so that the next time you forget, you’ll have at least an answer that worked for you in the past. Recently the answer came to me in the form of two open mic performances.

Two weeks ago at a Monday night open mic in Durham, I got on stage confident that I’d be able to seamlessly perform three of the seven songs that are going to be on my new album – songs that I have played over and over again so many times that I don’t even have to think about them in order to get them right. My mind was free to roam and wander – so I was caught up in how I didn’t like the sound of my voice over the PA system, and how there were three people in the audience and how I felt so silly because I could’ve just sung for them sitting three feet away rather than on a stage into a mic. All I wanted was for the songs to be over and to get off the stage – so of course, I started screwing up, hitting notes off pitch… and questioning why I’m even a performer in the first place, and shouldn’t I be doing something else with my life? The tragic result that night was a performance that was lacking in any emotion other than anxiety.

The next week I was there again on the same stage, deciding what songs to play at the last moment. I had no desire to sing any of the familiar, “go-to” songs, so I chose a few from my past that I hadn’t played in months. This time, I actually had to think about the words I was singing. And because of that, I was totally focused on what the songs were about and conveying that emotion to the people listening. Rather than worrying about a slightly off-pitch utterance, I was more concerned with the overall tone of my voice and how I could use the guitar to get quieter or louder or speed up or slow down, all to control the feeling of the song. And you know what? That night I loved playing, and I think others loved listening.

In my opinion people don’t care so much – or maybe they don’t even notice – when music is slightly imperfect in pitch or when fingers slip up in their picking patterns. Maybe a performer screws up a couple of times, but people don’t remember that at the end of the night. What they do remember is what and how the music made them feel. My goal when I play is to make people feel. I want them to feel what I was feeling at the moment when I wrote the song – nostalgia, longing, despair, fear, uncertainty, rejection – whatever it was, and whether or not it can easily be put into words – they are going to feel it. So that is what I’m going to strive for in every performance from now on, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

Because I think that’s the point of songwriting. Songwriting lets us convey experiences, thoughts, and emotions with a power that words on a page, or even spoken words, do not. Because it has the power of music behind it, songwriting allows us to express things that are beyond the scope of human language. In that way, it allows people to connect – whether through the earbuds of an iPod or on the radio or at a live performance – with the writer of the song and with all the other people who have ever listened to that song. Each person’s unique life experiences cause them to take away something different, which of course is another beautiful eccentricity of songwriting – that it is often deliberately open-ended and therefore open to individual interpretation. When we hear lyrics, we are constantly trying to shape them so that they fit into the frameworks of our own lives and minds and maybe lead us to new revelations or introduce us to different perspectives. And when we can relate to the emotion or experience of a particular song, the knowledge that someone else has felt the same way or experienced a similar situation makes us feel less alone.

Give the song legs, and let it walk away from you.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a “navel-gazer.”  The term – which, in my own words, refers to self-indulgent introspection so extreme it borders on complete self-absorption – was one I first heard from my dad, who always spoke about it like it was a bad thing: a practice that leads to egotistical self-importance at best, and self-pitying depression at worst.  Wikipedia tells me that the technical term for navel-gazing is omphaloskepsis: “the contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation” (see also: egotism).  I have found myself in an almost continual state of omphaloskepsis of late, which should come as no surprise, given my current set of circumstances: I am living alone for the first time in my life and simultaneously passing through the shortest, coldest days of winter – which, among other things (such as indicating a moderate case of S.A.D.), means that beyond going to work I have no desire to leave the house, and have recently gotten into the habit of drinking copious amounts of red wine while reading depressing novels (see also: Prozac Nation, Patti Smith’s Just Kids), writing self-indulgent blog posts, burning too much Sandalwood incense… and waiting for the spring.  I also just officially completed my first calendar year as a college graduate (which has been characterized by an almost continuous series of identity crises) and am, as you all know, a songwriter: another identity in itself, and one I cling to for dear life, and a career which has me constantly attempting to ratchet up the deepest, darkest depths of my soul (and then having existential crises and anxiety attacks when I actually do – I mean, what’s the point of the WORLD, you guys?!?!).  I have become the definition of the navel-gazer and probably ought to be referenced in the Wikipedia article (see also: Anna Rose Beck).

In light of these circumstances, I obviously found myself mired in self-absorbed reflection when I attended Tift Merritt’s songwriting workshop tonight, which was held in the very building on Duke’s East campus where, just less than two years ago and down the hall from where we sat, I first played guitar and sang in front of an audience for the first time ever.  My debut was part of “All of the Above,” an annual conglomeration of monologues written by Duke women and performed by other Duke women.  (The ladies running the operation were slightly annoyed when all I wanted to do was dress up like Bob Dylan and sing When the Ship Comes In… but at the time I hadn’t yet written my first song, so they humored me).  Tonight when I visited the ladies’ room in said East campus building I unfortunately was forced to recall a more desperate time in my personal history which found me chugging cheap white wine from the bottle… in the stall (see also: alcohol abuse) in an attempt to quell my SERIOUSLY terrible stage fright.

But to get back on topic, tonight happens to also be the eve of yet another visit to the recording studio in Asheville where I’ll be finalizing the mixing details of my first studio album (squeal!!!)  I can’t help but marvel at the mischievous and often beautiful outcomes of coincidence which bring us full circle and cause us to reflect on the paths we’ve chosen to take in life.  How appropriate that I was here to listen to another, more seasoned songwriter, talk about her own personal reflections, artistic processes and journey as a musician.

Ever since I started writing songs, I have been intensely interested in other artists’ songwriting processes.  There is so much variation, even within an individual, with regards to songwriting: for example (and to my readers who are songwriters, these will be obvious questions, so bear with me):  Which comes first – the music or the language?  Where does inspiration come from?  Does one write in first-person, in second-person, in present or past or even future tense?  Are the songs narratives, or random collections of observations about our personal philosophies, or advice to others?  Are they written for ourselves, or for people we know, or for society in general?  How strictly does one stick to “traditional” rules about song structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse…)?  Does one collaboratively write songs with others?  How ‘personal’ and ‘sacred’, and even important to one’s emotional well-being, is the songwriting process?  And so on and so forth…

I hadn’t planned to, but found myself pulling out my MacBook and frantically typing everything profound and/or interesting that came out of Tift Merritt’s mouth (which was quite a lot, actually).  So without further adieu, a few of my favorite reflections of Tift Merritt’s, with my randomly interjected, biased commentary:

On Bob Dylan:

“When I was listening to my Dylan records, or Van Morrison records, or Joni Mitchell records, there’s this kind of flippancy… an air of cool… like ‘I’m not even going to lift my finger to explain to you how I feel.’  And maybe all those songs really did just roll off Bob Dylan’s tongue… but as much as you might enjoy and strive for this casual feel, there is this very formal structure that can be used to build a song…  Dylan is forcing the lyrics into the music, and letting some of the music go.  When you listen to a Dylan song you don’t expect the melody to be as catchy as ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’….  There are lyrics and there’s a message, and that’s what’s important.”

…okay, so we don’t agree on Dylan.  I think some of his melodies are more gorgeous than a LOT of other songs I’ve heard.  And that, combined with his poetry and his content, makes him incredible in my mind.  But I guess we each have our musical tastes and are entitled to our own opinions.  At least she’s really sat down and listened and thought about it.

On music as language, and using musical structures to build a song:

“A good song can be a total of three sentences.  I think about music as a language.  I think about chord structures like the way you would put a subject and a predicate together.  And when I write a song… I have everything I have when I write a short story… setting, character, timeline… and whether they make it into those three sentences or not, you make sure that people feel those things.  When I was a kid my dad sat me down and told me you can play any song with a 1-4-5 chord progression.  And obviously there’s more to it than that.  But that’s what I mean about how music is a language.  You can agree on a set of rules and as long as you agree you can use it to communicate.  On the other hand there’s my friend Simone Dinnerstein who can speak the language with such subtlety and nuance that my jaw drops and I can’t keep up with her.  You know that the 1 can go to the 4… and the 4 can go to the 5… and it’s like putting a sentence together.  I think if you can think about songwriting in terms of having the strength of all of these choices at hand… to somehow think about the structures that you have and make choices with purpose and with knowledge, I think you are actually giving yourself more opportunity for freedom rather than less opportunity for freedom.  If I think about music as a set of deliberate choices and a structure I can function within… I can sit down at my desk and know that whatever huge scary choices are going to come at me, I know I’m equipped.”

Okay, so, for me, a three-sentence song (her example was ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’) is boring like vanilla ice cream (which is sometimes the perfect thing for how you’re feeling, but other times you just want something more…)  That’s why I love Dylan.  I want to hear new ideas and new truths and new mental images and new scenarios and new philosophies, throughout the whole song.  That is what I strive for in my songwriting, too.  I do love her metaphor comparing chord structures and sentence structures, and thinking about pre-existing chord structures as tools rather than as something you get trapped into.  That’s liberating.

On bridges:

“The bridge is really the ‘main course’ of the song.  It’s where I have to stop and ask myself, ‘what am I really trying to say?’  The bridge has to be a really well-constructed sentence.  You spend the whole song ‘working up the gumption’ to say what you want to say, and then you say it in the bridge.”

I buy it.  I don’t use bridges always but I dig them and use them when they come to me.  I haven’t thought about bridges as being the MAIN message of the song.  I always thought that was the job of the chorus.  But I buy what she’s saying.

On collaboration in writing:

“To me the most personal thing I do is when I go off alone and write music.  I generally don’t write with other people.  To me, it feels like going on a very uncomfortable date.  I don’t even write with my band…. There’s a sense of urgency when you write a song, and if you tell it to someone before you write it, you get rid of that sense of urgency.. so I’m very protective of what I have to say.”

Agreed.

On what defines a “good” song:

“At the end of the day a really good song is one that I can play all by myself and it will carry the same feeling and weight as it would if I had the full band with the strings and the horns and everything else.  A good song can hold its own.”

Yes.  Love it.  Lapping it up.

On criticism:

“In the music industry you receive a LOT of bad, unsolicited advice.  Especially about songwriting.  So, I’ve really learned to be my own best editor… The flip side of that, is there is a  moment to BE that best editor, and that is NOT when you are creating.  The angst that we all have when we’re sitting down to make something (‘is this any good?  is this idea so stupid?’)…  Not one ounce of those feelings do ANYTHING to make anything.  So there is no reason to edit yourself when you’re making something… when you’re in the process of trying to make it… let it be born… there’s no reason to edit… then you put it on its own and it’ll either stand there and speak or it will fall down, and you make that call later.  Those are two very different moments that often get tied together but shouldn’t be.”

On talking about the “meaning” of your songs:

“Sometimes I think it’s bad to talk about where songs come from because I like to think that songs are bigger than where they come from and to explain them really demeans them.”

Yes.  Yes.  I HATE when people ask me what a song is “about.”  I say, I can’t put what it’s “about” into one, coherent sentence – that’s WHY I had to write a song.  Otherwise I would’ve just written a sentence to say what I needed to say.

On letting content drive structure:

“When a story comes to you, you know which structure to use…. you use a folk structure for long, lyrically driven story, and you use a soul structure for something with feeling and more simple words.  You give the song legs and let it walk away from you.

Amen, sistah.  Later you guys.  I’ve gotta go listen to some Tift Merritt.


On the geographically varying culture of the Open Mic, and Playing Dead Last.

As many of you know, I am currently taking a brief hiatus from the blustering winds of the North Carolina winter to visit my family and friends in sunny, hippy-dippy Austin for a few weeks.  Over the past two years in Durham, I have played roughly a Bajillion Million open mics, but had never played one in Austin before last night.  Before I begin my social commentary on my first Official Austin Open Mic, I’ll give a little background.

Open mics are THE reason that I’m currently on this music-maker trajectory.  They’re how I began to get over my stage fright and insecurities – and believe you me, that was no easy feat.  One particularly traumatizing open mic night found me on stage in the middle of a song that I couldn’t finish because my fingers were shaking so badly, so like any logical human being I got off the stage and then went and cried in the bathroom.  If you’ve ever heard a more pathetic story than that, let me know.  But, in spite of the fact that it was so hard for me to perform – no, actually, because it was so hard for me to perform (what can I say, I’m a masochist) – I kept going back to the open mics.  It was there that I met many fellow musicians who gave me the encouragement and confidence I needed (special shout-out to Jason Hitchcock) to keep trying until I was offered my first “real” gig at The Broad Street Cafe in February of this past year.  One thing led to another and after playing every single gig I could possibly land over the past ten months (almost 30 – somewhere in the midst I lost the stage fright), I thought I was “kind of over” (read: too cool for) open mics.  Then I read Josh Ritter’s blog post, Open Mics and the Glamorous Bottom, quickly reaching the conclusion that if Josh Ritter (even in the early stages of his career) was not too cool to play an open mic, then I SURE AS HELL am not.

All that being said, I decided to hit up the Ruta Maya open mic on a humid and rainy Tuesday night to see what the Austin-bred, struggling-to-make-it singer/songwriters have to offer.  I showed up at 8:30 to sign up (as the website instructed) which, at the outset, was a lot different than my beloved NC open mics.  Everyone congregated around the allocated sign-up area right before 8:30 in anticipation, because it is assumed that there are not enough spots for everyone to play.  Guitars in hand and on personal missions from the higher powers to deliver musical poetry, everyone was too caught up in their own angst to talk to anyone else.  Wait, what?!  I thought everyone at open mic is supposed to be my friend!  Okay, whatever.  I can handle that.  Then I learned how the order works.  Ruta Maya uses a “lottery system” whereby of the 21 names on the list, people are randomly selected to play one after the other as the night goes on.  This is a clever way of thwarting those masturbatory musicians who show up at open mic intending to sign up on the list, leave, and then come back in time to get on stage, thereby refusing to listen to anyone else.  Okay, whatever.  I can handle that, too.  What follows is an approximate play-by-play of the next four hours.

9 pm  The first act goes on.  It is two guys singing some perdy harmonies, but nothing too mind-blowing.  I get a beer and make friends with the dude next to me.  

9:30  My mom and four of my friends show up to cheer me on.

9:45  A guy gets on and sings the word-for-word Spanish translation of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” which was ridiculously entertaining.  I have video of it that maybe I’ll post later. 

10  A 17 year old boy starts singing about the intimate details of his sexual escapades.  The word “deep” is involved on many levels.  Also ridiculously entertaining.  

11:00  My name has still not been called.  Two friends depart because they have work in the morning.  Bored.  We need more wine. 

11:30  Name still not called.  

11:45 Name still not called.  A frumpy older woman with long frizz-ly witch hair comes over to bitch at us for talking too much.  OH WAIT I THOUGHT THIS WAS AN OPEN MIC AND I THOUGHT OPEN MICS WERE SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, SOCIAL EXPERIENCES?!  We spend the next 30 minutes talking trash about what a miserable person she must be and attempting to muster the courage to say something back to her.  No one did.  

12 am  Night is beginning to grow long.  More and more people trickle out.  I thought about leaving but, hey, I’d already been there for the past 3 hours… might as well stick it out. 

12:30  My name is finally called.  Dead last.  DEAD LAST.  I now understand why we use the modifier “dead” in this situation.  Probably about 15 people are still here, which amazes me.  This in addition to my personal cheerleading section.  I got on stage and mumbled some nonsense about how being DEAD LAST at my first Austin open mic appearance must “mean something” though I wasn’t sure what.  Here is a video of some clips of my performance, courtesy of my mom and my new iPhone which has video recording with surprisingly good sound quality!  

http://www.youtube.com/v/OOgfX9cVHN0?version=3

Performance successful.  I gave out all 5 of the demo CDs I brought with me and received a total of $6 in unsolicited donations!  This covers 37% of the cost of alcohol consumed over the full 4-hour period.  Still, it was a fun and interesting experience.  Next up is the open mic at Flipnotics on Thursday night.  I’ll also probably reappear at Ruta Maya next Tuesday, if I can muster it.  

Til next time.  

ARB 

In case you had not heard the news…

I am currently recording my first EP at Landslide Studios in Asheville, North Carolina which will feature 7 of my original songs:

1. A Thousand Eyes

2. What I Love to Be

3. The Weathermaker

4. The Minor Chord Song

5. Words Left Unsaid

6. Begin to Sing

7. Be Still

I am expecting the CD to be released in mid-March 2011, but if you would like to be notified when it is available for download on iTunes, etc., please join my mailing list by clicking the “Join my Mailing List!” link in the sidebar.  Many thanks to the kind folks who helped me raise over $2,000 to cover recording/production costs via my Kickstarter project (which is now closed.)  Thank you to all for your continued support!  MUAH.

Live from the studio

Last weekend was spent at Landslide Studios in Asheville, North Carolina laying down bass & drum tracks for my first EP.  Being in the studio is, I think, one of my favorite experiences ever.  Yes, EVER, as in, my life up to now.

For one, all the attention is on me, which is how I like it to be.  Secondly, my producer/sound engineer Andrew Schatzberg is wonderful and has made the process not only non-stressful but really fun.  My friend Danielle took some of these photos of me, Andrew, bass player James Hines, and drummer Peter Councell figuring out the drum & bass arrangements for three of my songs.  (For a video of the process, click here.)

On Saturday we got drum and bass down for 3 songs – “Be Still,” “Begin to Sing,” and “Weathermaker.”  On Sunday we got electric bass on “Words Left Unsaid” and standup bass from my bud Cornelius Lewis on “What I Love to Be” and “A Thousand Eyes.”

SO MANY MICS for the drum kit!!!

My next 4 days in the studio will be Dec. 9-12 when I’ll finish my guitar tracks and vocals and then have guests come in to play cello, piano, mandolin, etc.  It’s gonna be fun fun fun… HAPPY THANKSGIVING, Y’ALL.  Luckily I have a lot to be thankful for this year.  ❤